Thoughtful non-Christians object to a god who seems to commend genocide. Sodom and Gomorrah represents one such account in the Bible. God appears to differ little from a religious terrorist in the eyes of some who read this account. How do we preach such a passage with such objections in mind, particularly for people who have little familiarity with the Bible? A place to start is with a question. We must ask ourselves, “how would this text sound to someone who only knows about the Bible, Jesus and Christianity through the scraps of caricature they have seen in sitcoms, the sad representations they’ve seen on the news, or the partial misinformation they have gleaned from movies or documentaries?”
In this text, at least three challenges surface for Western hearers. (1) The idea that God is unjust and lustful for destruction and would destroy an entire city and kill its inhabitants. Our hearers live in a world in which people kill in God’s name. This is their cultural grammar. God will seem no different than a religious terrorist and cultural backtalk will result. (2) the cruel choice of Lot regarding his daughters in Genesis 19:8 sounds little different from the physical abuse of women that humane and Jesus movements have tried to end and (3) the supernatural presence of angels in itself along with what will seem to a Harry Potter generation as the magic powers of fictional characters Genesis 19:11. I’m coming to believe that if we act as if these cultural voices do not exist, our thoughtful non-Christian hearers will render us clueless as to their questions, Christian hearers will never learn how to address such questions with their neighbors, and I myself, not as a preacher, but as a man will have forgotten what it is like to encounter these jarring statements in the Bible and follow Abraham’s lead in asking God my questions about it. For example, I have a daughter. I have no category as a man for understanding Lot’s actions with his. If I am dishonest about this, my hearers will rightly think me unfeeling, disingenuous, or trite. Jesus is none of these things. And, I desire that they experience something of what He is like when they come and hear His message proclaimed.
So, I’m asking myself, what would it look like for us to take just one of these points and for three to five minutes in the sermon to thoughtfully say, “you have heard it said, but Jesus says to you . . .” (Just as Jesus does throughout the Sermon on the Mount) What do you think? How do we grow in communicating such things? Here is my attempt at what it might sound like to take a moment in the sermon to address the first challenge.[you have heard it said]
[but I say to you]
Now, I realize that for some of us, this text only affirms what many are saying today. Many are saying that “religion is the cause of violence in the world. The worship of God leads to anger, division, hatred, and violence toward our neighbors.” I think there is some truth in this statement. It is true that people have done horrible things in the names of their gods. People have even done horrible things to one another in the name of Jesus. How we, who have been called by Jesus to love our neighbors, including our enemies, can justify such things, warrants challenge. People have done horrible things in the name of God.
But, that being said, there are two things that I ask you to consider and then a point I’d like to make.
1. I’d like to ask you to consider that violence toward our neighbor is also perpetrated by those who are atheist or agnostic as the history of Russia for example will quickly reveal. Most bullies on the playground, most of the crime in saint louis tonight, most arguments between husbands and wives tonight, most bench-clearing fights on the baseball field or football field tonight will have nothing to do with one’s belief in God. I ask you to consider that violence rises in the human heart quite apart from religion. There is something in us that is bent toward disregarding our neighbor whether we are religious or irreligious.
2. I’d like to ask you to consider this biblical text itself. First, the issue is that an “outcry” from victims has come to God’s attention (18:20, 19:13). The issue therefore is not innocent people going to work in two tall towers in Manhattan or eating at an outdoor cafe in London. God is not targeting innocent civilians. Second, God is not in a heated rage smashing bottles and punching walls uncontrollably. He is measured, taking time to verify and reveal what is true (18:21, 19:1ff) Thirdly, our question is asked by Abraham. “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous and the wicked?” Abraham asks and then charges that such an action would make God unjust. The Bible doesn’t avoid our question but raises it for us. God makes it clear that if there was a righteous one he would spare the city. Finally, we are told that what God finds out is this: “both young and old” are bent on raping and viciously mistreating the neighbors who come in to visit their town (19:4-5). This text does not reveal God judging innocent righteous persons with random and cruel death. It is the opposite! God is seeking to respond to the outcry of victims who have experienced the gang and mob violence of those who inhabit Sodom. The situation resembles the horrific news story from USA Today just yesterday. The headline reads: 200 Women Gang Raped Near Congo base-U.N. says. The story includes the sexual mistreatment of a gang on four baby boys. Read this story dear friend and then ask yourself how you feel and what response is appropriate to hear the outcry of the victims, to defend them from further harm, and to justly deal with the mob of 400 persons going about perpetrating such harm?
After these two considerations, my point now is this: Sodom and Gomorrah expresses how God actively upholds neighbor-love. To do so, God hears the outcry of the victim. God judges the violent offender. Perhaps you feel that God should judge gang rapists with milder means. But at least, you and I can dismiss the caricature of this story, the caricature of a god who lustfully rages about and kills innocent persons. This story is not that one. In this story God who created Eden and instituted neighbor love must continually deal with and disrupt an ongoing neighbor-hatred since Adam and since Noah and now at the time of Abraham. We are meant to learn from it that no amount of just judgment is sufficient to heal the bent heart of humanity and turn it toward neighbor-love. Your heart and mine, no matter how many times we’ve gotten in trouble justly when we were kids and now as adults, we still find disregard for neighbor more natural to us than any of us want to admit. This is why God will finally put judgment upon Himself, and send His own Son to purchase the neighbor-love that we ourselves cannot find . . .”